I Believe GSN Finally Knows What Works. You May Disagree Somewhat. Split The Difference?

Of all of my career accomplishments, I relished my time as head of strategy and acquisitions for Game Show Network perhaps as much as any.  While the network wasn’t as popular or as significant as some of my other stops were, I was being handsomely paid to indulge in a passion, rubbed shoulders with talent and many colleagues I revere to this day, and, most importantly, delivered audiences and profit margins that had never been seen by them previously, and, to the best of my knowledge, hasn’t been eclipsed since.  And depending upon the time of day, it was a relatively easy commute.

My playbook was simple:  Know your IP, as well as the possible options to remake and revive.  Control costs, but don’t pinch pennies.  Respect your audience enough to know what they like and why,  Surprise them every now and then.  And double down on what did work.  I wasn’t unique in that approach; I had seen first-hand how those ingredients have worked for many others whose paths I have crossed over the years.

Sadly, as has often been the case for me at various times, while the top management layers of the network and the company were supportive, I ran into a buzzsaw of snarking, ego-inflated, reverse sexist people to whom I directly reported to and attempted to supervise, frequently mocking my genuine passion, taking every opportunity to undermine my accomplishments whenever possible.  The supportive management was unfortunately influenced by other distractions, including their own personal biases and dalliances.  So what began so promising quickly unraveled into a nightmarish spiral of backstabbing, door-slamming, posturing and outright ghosting. I seem to have that effect on many.  Despite the fact that my final year in the role was the most fiscally successful one of my tenure.

As I’ve previously written here often, those that were most threatened by me ultimately made some extremely poor choices in who and what they chose to do business with.  Their results were, at best, mixed, and as of last year the last of those snarking survivors finally was relieved of their duties.  Those that are in charge now are among the few who actually seemed to respect not only me but their audience–the ultimate source of their success.  They have listened to actual research and have learned more than a thing or two about what qualities people like, and identified and nurtured new shows that take the essence of what has worked before and put them into an economic scenario that minimizes their risk.  Most of all, they’ve realized that filling their schedule with umpteenth reruns of FAMILY FEUD–what I identified as a stopgap solution to stop the bleeding I inherited more than a decade ago–was counterproductive.   They’ve developed an impressive slate of cost-effective reboots, reworks and simply playable shows, some even with salable libraries they can monetize via their Sony cousins to local stations.

The latest of these savvy moves debuts tomorrow, with a new version of the Q&A game SPLIT SECOND, whose original 70s version emerged as a glitzier yet still challenging lunchtime companion piece to the venerable original version of JEOPARDY!, successful enough to get those viewers to switch channels between bites and knock off what was was NBC’s successful yet slower-paced partner, THE WHO, WHAT OR WHERE GAME, in the process.  A later version, hosted by show co-creator Monty Hall and shot inexpensively in Canada, where Hall’s dual citizenship further brought costs down on, was not as successful but played ubiquitously in reruns for years on cable.  The version that debuts tomorrow has more in common stylistically with the Hall version, but the essence of the game is intact.  Three contestants ring in to see who gets the first chance to attempt to supply one of three correct answers to a segmented question.  Those that supply correct answers when their opponents are unable to score more points.  The third round, called “The Countdown Round”, gives players the chance to supply one, two or all three correct answers, their seeding in the horse race determined by how well they scored in the first two rounds.  While it sort of negates the scoring of the first portion, it invariably produces exciting comebacks; indeed, the sample episode released by GSN this weekend shows exactly that outcome.

It’s not quite the de facto remake of the original; there’s no longer an end game where a champion gets to choose from five cars dramatically revealed when the compact set literally split, and there’s no carryover champion.  There’s a new “Final Countdown” end game offering a $10,000 bonus (what GSN show these days doesn’t?) and, frankly, that works, too.  And the psychology of trying to guess whether a geeky family man would choose to try and start a Corvette versus a Caprice Classic wagon is a bit outdated (besides, Monty being the savvy businessman that he was, would almost NEVER give away the Corvette!!).   We know all too well he’d typically only award wins when the Pontiacs were in play (and, more often than note, it was the Ventura, not the Grand Prix).

But this version not only maintains what did work, they’ve installed the emcee of their most popular new offering, John Michael Higgins, as host.  Higgins hosted five successful seasons of AMERICA SAYS!, best described as a way to do FAMILY FEUD with slightly cleaner material and without Steve Harvey.  Higgins has developed into a competent emcee and smoothly glides SPLIT SECOND’s somewhat less frenzied pace in this go-around with aplomb.  It’s clear producers have developed him much the same way as Brooke Burns was on the original version of THE CHASE, and she is now one of the other faces of this GSN fronting a show called MASTER MINDS, essentially a Ross’ Dress For Less version of THE CHASE that now also features her longtime sparring partner Mark Labbett, aka “The Beast”, while the former show now occupies a more prominent but less beloved slot on ABC’s primetime schedule.  They’ve also resurrected a Sony-owned game show originally from the same mind as PYRAMID, CHAIN REACTION, and simultaneously rescued the mid-2000s version’s emcee, Dylan Lane, from obscurity.  And yes, they actually went out and acquired the reruns of the current version of PYRAMID (and y’all know how I feel about that) to round out primetime.

Does it skew “old, old, old, old, old, old, old, old?”  Arguably.  But the average age of almost ANY non-kids’ linear televison network is now over 50.  They’ve risen 12 places in overall audience ranking since pre-pandemic (48th place in 2019; 36th place in 2022) and retained over 90 per cent of their 2019 audience in the process.  In 2022, they maintained more of their year-ago audience than FX, TNT, USA, A&E and FOX.  Oh, yeah, HGTV, E!, TBS, Animal Planet and Bravo, too.

Yes, there are whiny fanbois who lament the fact that GSN isn’t BUZZR, the Fremantle-owned diginet that largely utilizies the playbook that GSN’s founders developed nearly 30 years ago.  But even yours truly, who can debate niggly details with even the most geeky and cringy viewers, knows that a strategy celebrating “Dead Emcees Society” (sorry, folks, even Betty White has passed) can’t work.  And even though I know as well as anyone that it was Tom Kennedy, not Monty, that did the best version of SPLIT SECOND, he’s gone now as well.  As is the entire Pontiac line.  As someone whose first car was a 1970 LeMans which was appropriately named “Get Out And Push”, I don’t miss that.

Nor do I miss executives who thought they knew more than their audience did, let alone me.

I’m extremely happy for those that in charge now, and I’m rooting for the new SPLIT SECOND and its companions more than ever.  Like most GSN shows these days, in this case, there’s a happy ending.  I’m hoping my next one is a split second or two away.

Until next time…

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